Not everything is a nail

I work in communications.  I’m fortunate to work for what I consider the finest communications firm in the world. I left this company to run my own firm and often said that if I ever went back to a big firm it would only be this one.

When you work for a firm like this, companies, organizations and people sometimes expect you to solve their problems using communication.  There’s an old adage that if you have a hammer, every problem is a nail.  In our business, that isn’t true.

This was driven home in comments included by our CEO Richard Edelman in a recent address to the IPR 50th Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner where he said:

When President Barack Obama was interviewed by Ron Suskind for his new book Confidence Men, he said:

―The area in my presidency where I think we made the most mistakes was less on the policy front and more on the communications front…The irony is the reason I am in this office is because I told a story to the American people… We lost that narrative thread in the day-to-day problem solving…

Going forward as president, the symbols and gestures … what the people are seeing coming out of this office … are at least as important as the policies we put forward.‖

With all due respect, Mr. President, I think you missed the point. You assume that you simply have a communications problem, but policy and communications cannot be separated. And both are tied to operating reality.

The complete text of Mr. Edelman’s address is located on the Edelman web site.

I was part of a discussion today where several people were talking about how a local university official should respond to an incident that has raised ire and outrage around the country.   Many recommendations were offered such as “should have responded to criticism immediately,” and “take control of the narrative,” or “talk directly to the community.”

All are standard “crisis response” tactics that yes should have been followed.  However, the most important is that this isn’t a communication problem. It was a policy problem.  Remember, just because you have a hammer, not everything is a nail.

One other note is something that I have learned through experience, that should be common sense, but doesn’t seem to always make it into people’s minds.  BUILD A NETWORK BEFORE YOU NEED IT.  This means, talk with reporters before you ask them to listen to a pitch, interact with bloggers before you send them an idea, and build strong community relationships before you have a crisis.